I had a dream about him last night. It’s been a long time since that happened. I kissed him in this dream, and it felt like nothing, but I still woke up feeling sad.
I know why: it’s because his birthday was last week, and because the one-year anniversary of the breakup is next week. But more than that–better than that–it’s because I’m finally coming back to life. I’m finally seeing men again, contemplating them, pondering how it might be to risk it again. Whether the possible upside outweighs the possible downside. Thinking that it just might.
I told my sister this in a bar. She shook her head. We are such slow healers, she marveled. It’s more like we are good at wholeheartedly committing, I said. Someday, that might actually be a good thing. She shook her head again, and we played several rounds of “Hey do you know…” with the bartender. We knew dozens of people in common. We’d been to all the same gigs. It was satisfying, in the way that shallow intimacy can be if your memory of real intimacy has faded.
Among the many things I wish I’d known about myself 15 years ago is how long it takes me to process these wounds. I should have been working on this like a muscle: putting myself out there and bouncing back. Putting myself out there and trying to bounce back faster. Thwoch thwock thwock, like a pink rubber ball thrown against a wall, the brutal conditioning of the tenderhearted. Instead I just coddled myself like some Victorian consumptive, hiding little scraps of passion in my sewing basket so no one could judge them. What a waste.
On the 4th of July, a friend I’ve known for almost 20 years told me that lately he feels peaceful and happy, and that he thinks it’s because this is his last gasp of youth, and he’s finally in a place to enjoy it. He turns 40 this fall. I believed my turning point was going to be 30. I chopped off all my hair because I thought it was time; my long unruly curls seemed mismatched with what I thought would be an immediate flowering of maturity, serenity, and wisdom. A week after I cut it off, I panicked and added bright pink streaks. I’m growing it out now, and even though people are nicer to me when I straighten it, and it feels more professional to do so for work, I wear it down or in a tumbled updo every day. I told my friend what I believe now: that you never know when one phase is ending because you never know when the next one will start. You can unwittingly be caught up for ages in a phase you thought would last six months, tops. Exhibit A: my whole life, broken into huge chunks like geological eras. Sadly, some of those eras were dullsville, utterly fallow. What unrealized potential, all those seeds that missed their time to bloom.
When I look back now at the skin and stamina and soul of 30-year-old me–just seven years ago, but a lifetime–I see someone who was barely half-formed. My god, I still thought I had all the time in the world to decide what to do with myself, and that time would just spool out forever into the future, with more and more opportunity, just like it always had in my past. What a baby I was. I want to chuck me under my firm, firm chin.
I wouldn’t say the time I spent in my last relationship was wasted, exactly, but nor would I say it was time well spent. Time well spent would have been dating throughout my twenties, and bouncing back until I learned not to hit myself so hard in the first place by falling for slippery, broken boys who don’t really want to be happy, because I do. I want to be happy, in love, with the mess and the strife and the compromise that goes with it. And the commitment to stay in it, because without that, all of those other things are just wasted time. You don’t get that time back, and you will never again see the pieces of your soul you lose along the way. Chary as I was with those gifts, I would have hoarded them even more, had I known.
One of the odd things about getting older is how terrible it feels to see people making the mistakes I made and not being able to make them stop. There’s so much we all have to figure out on our own about who we are, and who we want to be, but I wish someone had tried to tell me what I know now: Love is it, it’s the most important thing, and it is hard to find for most of us. The other people, the lucky ones who fall into love like it’s their birthright, get all the press. It can seem like we unlucky strivers are the oddballs, like it must be our fault, but I’m here to tell you–the system is rigged against all of us. Men and women, ugly and beautiful, well-adjusted and broken, richer or poorer, vibrant or unwell. The odds are not in our favor. Congratulate the lucky ones, smile throughout their lovely weddings, but don’t waste time dwelling on them.
Unfortunately, odds or no, you can’t win if you don’t play, and you also can’t win if your game strategy is to wallow in unrequited love, or to wallow in girls nights in or guys nights in or gay best friend nights in, or to sit around reading on a cafe patio and hoping the sun is striking you at such a flattering angle that surely some smart, beautiful person will comment on your fine taste in literature and, shortly thereafter, tumble you into a featherbed of love. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but I am saying that it almost certainly won’t.
Which is all to say: don’t leave anything to chance. Have a plan and a timeline and stick to it. Give yourself constructive criticism when your deliverables are delayed, and seek ways to streamline workstreams. Innovate, within the bounds of what’s appropriate and cost effective; a lot can be accomplished merely by craftily deployed sexy undergarments. And if Plan A is going off the rails, have Plan B ready to deploy. Tick tock, fellow travelers.
My strategy lately–which I don’t endorse, by the way–is to approach love stealthily, to slow my heartbeat and avoid eye contact so as not to spook it, to convince even myself that I’m not coming after it so that it cannot smell my intent. I think my last approach was too direct, so I’m trying to learn from my mistakes and adjust. Meanwhile, I am also playing the long game, trying to male myself the best hunter I can be, sleek and lightfooted and confident, the one who knows what birds are singing and the names of the trees where they’re performing*, the one who is waited for instead of the one who waits. I even feel hopeful, sometimes, that it might work. Whatever happens next, I’m going to make it happen instead of waiting for it to happen to me. I’ve at least learned that, I think. I hope.
With apologies to The Avett Brothers; I listen to this song about five times a day.